By Ed Staskus
“I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go…” Canned Heat
“We’re always around here,” said Denver McCabe, casting a glance over the chairs and tables on the deck on the sparkling summer water.
Carr’s Oyster Bar is on the New London Bay, in Stanley Bridge, on Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic Canada province where Canada happened about 150 years ago. Opened in 1999, from the deck, kicking back with a pint on a warm day, you can see the wharf across the bay where oysters are landed.
They’re shucked when you order them, served with a fresh lemon slice, or you can order clams mussels quahogs. Last year the restaurant won the Restaurants Canada Shellfish Excellence Award. “I’m happy to showcase the best shellfish in the world,” said Phyllis Carr.
Whenever she slides a sharp knife into an oyster and pries it apart at the hinge “it’s the best one ever.”
“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” said Jonathan Swift.
Life is too short to not have oysters. But, they are best eaten with friends family anybody somebody else. Although oysters keep themselves to themselves, they’re a weird thing to eat by yourself.
Native North Americans harvested them for thousands of years. In the 19th century New York City was filled with oyster saloons. Today no oysters anywhere taste as good as those found on the north shore of PEI.
Denver McCabe and Brenden Carr are ten-year-old boys born and bred on Prince Edward Island. Until recently both lived in Stanley Bridge, a small town of fewer than 300 on the north central coast of the island on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“He swarms me when I come home from Edmonton,” said Denver. “I go to his house every day.”
They have spent all of their summers on the bay, along the Stanley River, and making the scene daily on the deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar. ”We grew up together,” said Brenden. “He’s my best friend.”
You can’t Madison Avenue anybody to be your best friend. Denver and Brenden have known each other since they were anklebiters. What do you do with your best friend when you’re both ten-years-old? A good time doing a whole lot of nothing, eyeing and gabbing about everything, cruising doing me, making fish faces, making mischief, making your summer jump, and jumping rocks.
“Most of the time we go on the rocks,” said Denver. “That’s how I get my energy up.”
The riverbank and along the shoreline are protected by piled rocks, riprap revetments.
“We go to my house and play on the trampoline, too,” said Brenden.
“I do flips,” said Denver. “I know how.”
“On the rocks we do hard core technical stuff. We jump rock to rock. He challenges me,” said Brenden.
“Sometimes I jump from one rock to the third one,” said Denver.
“So do I. I never fall down.”
“Me neither,” said Denver. “The other day I fell. Did I fall?”
“Unless you were faking me,” said Brenden.
Even though they aren’t yet preteens, they talk like old friends, the same as thinking out loud, their thoughts like toppings that can’t always be fathomed into a pizza.
“I fell once or twice, probably. It was because I jumped from one rock to a far, far one. I just got back up.”
Many people do all their playing when they’re children, all their working when they’re grown up, and all their retiring when they reach old age. When you play, no matter how old you are, you can be a kid as long as you want. Just watch out for the rocks.
“He jumps off the bridge,” said Brenden.
The Route 6 main street bridge crosses the Stanley River at the New London Bay. On one side of the bridge is Carr’s Oyster Bar and on the other side of the bridge is the Race Trac gas station and Sterling Women’s Institute community hall. Jumping off the bridge thirty feet into the bay is summertime chill in Stanley Bridge.
“We go to the bridge and tell them to jump, hurry up, don’t be scared,” said Denver. “I did it when I was eight. They’re teenagers, but they’re scared.”
“They never jump when we tell them,” said Brenden.
“I jump with my crush, Jess,” said Denver. “She’s a waitress here at Carr’s.”
“She’s my crush, too.”
“I got engaged to her,” said Denver.
“Me, too,” said Brenden.
“Whenever we tap our cheeks she has to come over and give us a kiss on the cheek.”
They tapped with their index fingers, the both of them. They’re not shy on their home turf on the Stanley River. They believe in their flyness.
Jessica Gillis, twice their age and more than a foot taller than the boys, walked over to where they were warming seats at a table on the deck on the bay eating nachos and sipping from childproof Shirley Temples.
They looked up. “Oh, my God, now what?” said Jessica, looking down at them. It was like ‘The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’.
They tapped their cheeks again.
“No,” she said.
Even though both boys are in love with Jess, they don’t actually hang out with her. It’s not complicated. Most boys don’t like girls hanging around when they’re doing their own boy things.
“I never jump the bridge,” said Brenden. “I can’t swim.”
“I learned when I was four,” said Denver.
“I took lessons for a year,” said Brenden. “But, I don’t like people bossing me around.”
“It’s kind of weird because he lives right beside the water,” said Denver.
“I almost floated away one day,” said Brenden.
“It was a windy day and it blew his splash meter away,” said Denver. “He was trying to get it back, but the wind blew him away, too.”
“I floated to where it was just to my cheeks.”
“He needed my help, but I couldn’t swim fast because there were oyster traps everywhere.”
“My brother and dad were there, but then they went on their boat,” said Brenden.
“He stayed in the water and it became fine,” said Denver.
Brenden’s father David Carr is an oysterman. “He has his own boat,” said Brenden. “He catches eels, too. When he goes eel fishing he goes with his brother Stan.”
Eels are nocturnal, hiding during the day. Fishermen hunt them at night. Few fish put up the fight that a good-sized eel does. An eel held by the tail is not necessarily caught, yet. They can swim backwards as well as forwards.
“We went to the sand and I got a bad, bad sunburn,” said Brenden.
“Same with me, on the same day.”
“Yeah, but mine was worse.”
“That’s why you didn’t catch Jacob.”
“He’s sketchy,” said Brenden, making a face.
“He said my friends run away because of my ugly face. That pissed me off. I ran after him and pushed him. He ran to the park where there were booths being set up for Canada Day and got under one. I couldn’t bend down because my back was burnt from the sunburn. I would have given him a big one.”
After his sunburn got better Brenden had an airbrush tattoo of a barcode stencilled across his chest. It was at the Canada Day parade festivities concert fireworks day in nearby North Rustico. “It’s because I’m funny talented a good actor good singer good dancer and handsome and beautiful.”
Denver had a red maple leaf tattooed on his cheek. “I’m hot,” he said, looking out from under the brim of his bright orange Bass Pro Shop baseball cap.
“When I walk into a sauna I make it even hotter.”
“Dreams, Denver, dreams,” said Brenden.
Trying to tag along with the stream of consciousness of ten-year-olds can be like trying to play putt putt during an earthquake.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, who grew up on PEI and wrote “Anne of Green Gables” a hundred-or-so years ago, wrote that Stanley Bridge “used to seem quite a town to my childish eyes. It was the hub of the universe then – or of our solar system at the very least.”
“Brenden and I are cousins,” said Denver.
“My great-uncle, Granny Phyllis’s husband, is his grandfather,” said Brenden. “Phyllis was my cousin before she married, so I’m related to Denver both ways.”
“My grandpa is a Carr and Granny Gallant was a Doiron before she changed to Gallant,” said Denver. “Everybody in Granny’s family was a Gallant. My grandfather was Tommy Gallant. He found the Marco Polo. He’s famous on the island. He’s famous in heaven now.”
“He’s my great-uncle,” said Brenden, “I took dancing from him.”
Given enough time and left to their own genealogical devices they would likely conjure everyone on the island a cousin in the 9th degree, and discover a common ancestor in steerage on the St. Jehan, one of the first passenger ships sailing to the New World back in the 1630s.
“We’re from here,” said Suzanne McCabe, Denver’s mother.
“Cory, my husband, is from Rustico. We moved to Edmonton for the work. My grandmother and Brenden’s grandmother are sisters and my dad and his grandfather are brothers.”
The first explorers to land on PEI were the French, who called it Isle St. Jean. They fished for cod and traded for furs. The first settlers were Acadians. After the Seven Years War it was re-named Prince Edward Island. Scots, English, and Irish emigrants sailed to the British colony and built their own close-knit communities. Doirin and Gallant are Acadian surnames. McCabe and Carr are English Irish Scottish surnames.
Most Acadians are bilingual, but nowadays some speak English with a French accent, even though, for one reason or another, they no longer speak French.
“When I wake up I go on my phone, track what time it is, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth,” said Denver.
“I don’t have a phone. Sometimes I have your phone in my pocket,” said Brenden.
“It’s dead,” said Denver.
“I was cranky this morning. My brother woke me up early. I usually get up at six, but there’s no school anymore,” said Brenden.
Denver and Brenden help out at Carr’s Oyster Bar peeling potatoes and washing windows.
“I do everything,” said Denver.
“I help my father get fish,” said Brenden.
“Me and Brenden used to go to the sand dunes and collect hermit crabs,” said Denver. “But, he hasn’t come to his job, the last time was a year ago.”
The most freedom most people ever have is when they misspend most of their free time as children.
“More than a year ago, actually.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Brenden.
“You’ve never come since you handed out menus and got no money.”
“I got paid five dollars and I got another five dollars when you won the 50/50.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Denver. “My aunt is religious and prayed to win the 50/50. When she did she gave me some of it and I gave some to him.”
“Do you remember when I peeled the carrots in the shed?” asked Brenden.
“Look at my muscles,” said Denver, flexing a bicep.
“You don’t have any.”
“I definitely feel something on my arm. What do you think this is?” said Denver, pointing.
“Is that like a pimple?” asked Brenden.
Denver McCabe is an aspiring hockey player in Edmonton, Alberta, playing for the Mellwood Icebreakers. “I might go to Double A soon,” he said. “It depends on how good I am. My team wasn’t good. They wouldn’t pass the puck, so I was the one who had to pass the most.”
Brendan Carr has studied judo and plays ball hockey. “On my own time, not with a team,” he said. “I played soccer, too, once.”
The kicking heading game is beyond the pale for some. They believe if God had wanted boys to play soccer he wouldn’t have made them with arms. Brenden is a step dancer, like soccer got done sans hands.
Step dance is a dance style in which footwork is by far the most important part of the performance. At ceilidhs in community halls across Prince Edward Island it is accompanied by toe-tapping fiddle tunes. Children often learn it at an early age.
“Tommy Gallant taught me,” said Brenden.
“But, I mostly taught myself. I was in a class for a year and then I watched and followed Robbie, who’s my uncle. I dance at all of my Uncle Leon’s music shows at the hall. I don’t dance at every one of his concerts, just every one when I’m there. I’ve never been to one since I was four-years-old that I haven’t danced up on stage.”
“I never get called up on stage,” said Denver.
“That’s because you never ask,” said Brenden.
“I asked Leon once, he said yes, but he didn’t even call me up.”
When they’re not jumping rocks, step dancing, or trying to cadge kisses from waitresses, they spend some of the summer at summer camps. Denver goes to a Bible camp in Malpeque and Brenden goes to a rock-n-roll camp in Charlottetown.
“My first son slept in a surplus Canadian Army tent,” said Suzanne McCabe. “He never went back to camp ever again.”
“Denver doesn’t like rock-n-roll,” said Brenden.
“We were all at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster, rock lobster, rock lobster…”
“I only like pop and country,” said Denver.
“Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack, it’s early to rise, early in the sack, thank God I’m a country boy…”
Brenden probably wouldn’t mind being the lead guitarist in a wildly successful band. He has a guitar. But, he doesn’t play it. He sings. “I do like to sing,” he said. “I only get nervous when I have to sing in front of my friends.”
“KISS is the worst band ever,” said Denver.
“I listen to KISS a lot,” said Brenden.
When Canada Day finally got dark on July 1st and they craned their necks to watch fireworks exploding over the North Rustico harbor, Denver and Brenden still had nearly two more months of summer to spend in Stanley Bridge before going back to school.
It’s only when you’re still a kid and the long summer is stretching out in front of you that doing practically nothing all day becomes respectable.
“Are you going to the barbeque?” Brenden asked the next day.
“I’ll probably go with you,” said Denver. “Where is it?”
“It’s right here. Stanley Bridge is a wonderful place. I can see trees and the church from our kitchen window,” said Brenden.
Right here is the hub of the universe, re-mixed.
“I like the water. I like walking in it. Everyone should come to Carr’s Oyster Bar, where we are, sometimes, when we’re around here, if you live close,” said Denver. “It’s beside the main road.”
Water is always trying to get back to where it came from.
“Believe it, have fun and love life,” said Brenden, with a chuck of the head over his black sleeveless t-shirted shoulder, as he and Denver ran off opening the flyness throttle keeping their energy up jumping rocks, dashing off plans for the rest of the summer.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”